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making notes - an instrumental rationality process.

14 Post author: Elo 05 September 2015 10:51PM

The value of having notes. Why do I make notes.


Story time!

At one point in my life I had a memory crash. Which is to say once upon a time I could remember a whole lot more than I was presently remembering. I recall thinking, "what did I have for breakfast last Monday? Oh no! Why can't I remember!". I was terrified. It took a while but eventually I realised that remembering what I had for breakfast last Monday was:

  1. not crucial to the rest of my life

  2. not crucial to being a function human being

  3. I was not sure if I usually remember what I ate last Monday; or if this was the first time I tried to recall it with such stubbornness to notice that I had no idea.

After surviving my first teen-life crisis I went on to realise a few things about life and about memory:

  1. I will not be remembering everything forever.

  2. Sometimes I forget things that I said I would do. Especially when the number of things I think I will do increases past 2-3 and upwards to 20-30.

  3. Don't worry! There is a solution!

  4. As someone at the age of mid-20s who is already forgetting things; a friendly mid-30 year old mentioned that in 10 years I will have 1/3rd more life to be trying to remember as well. Which should also serve as a really good reason why you should always comment your code as you go; and why you should definitely write notes. "Past me thought future me knew exactly what I meant even though past me actually had no idea what they were going on about".

The foundation of science.


There are many things that could be considered the foundations of science. I believe that one of the earliest foundations you can possibly engage in is observation.


In a more-than-goldfish form; observation means holding information. It means keeping things for review till later in your life; either at the end of this week; month or year. Observation is only the start. Writing it down makes it evidence. Biased, personal, scrawl, (bad) evidence all the same. If you want to be more effective at changing your mind; you need to know what your mind says.


It's great to make notes. That's exactly what I am saying. It goes further though. Take notes and then review them. Weekly; monthly; yearly. Unsure about where you are going? Know where you have come from. With that you can move forward with better purpose.

My note taking process:

1. get a notebook.

This picture includes some types of notebooks that I have tried.

  1. A4 lined paper cardboard front and back. Becomes difficult to carry because it was big. And hard to open it up and use it as well. side-bound is also something I didn't like because I am left handed and it seemed to get in my way.

  2. bad photo but its a pad of grid-paper. I found a stack of these on the middle of the ground late at night as if they fell off a truck or something. I really liked them except for them being stuck together by essentially nothing and falling to pieces by the time I got to the bottom of the pad.

  3. lined note paper. I will never go back to a book that doesn't hold together. The risk of losing paper is terrible. I don't mind occasionally ripping out some paper but to lose a page when I didn't want to; has never worked safely for me.

  4. Top spiral bound; 100 pages. This did not have enough pages; I bought it after a 200pager ran out of paper and I needed a quick replacement, well it was quick – I used it up in half the time the last book lasted.

  5. Top spiral bound 200 pages notepad, plastic cover; these are the type of book I currently use. 8 is my book that I am writing in right now.

  6. 300 pages top spiral bound – as you can see by the tape – it started falling apart by the time I got to the end of it.

  7. small notebook. I got these because they were 48c each, they never worked for me. I would bend them, forget them, leave them in the wrong places, and generally not have them around when I wanted them.

  8. I am about half way through my current book; the first page of my book says 23/7/15, today it is 1/9/15. Estimate a book every 2 months. Although it really depends on how you use it.

  9. a future book I will try, It holds a pen so I will probably find that useful.

  10. also a future one, I expect it to be too small to be useful for me.

  11. A gift from a more organised person than I. It is a moleskin grid-paper book and I plan to also try it soon.

The important take-aways from this is – try several, they might work in different ways and for different reasons. Has your life change substantially i.e. you don't sit much at a desk any more? Is the book not working; maybe another type of book would work better.

I only write on the bottom of the flip-page, and occasionally scrawl diagrams on the other side of the page. But only when they relevant. This way I can always flip through easy, and not worry about the other side of the paper.


2. carry a notebook. Everywhere. Find a way to make it a habit. Don't carry a bag? You could. Then you can carry your notepad everywhere with you in a bag. Consider a pocket-sized book as a solution to not wanting to carry a bag.

3. when you stop moving; turn the notebook to the correct page and write the date.

Writing the date is almost entirely useless. I really never care what the date is. I sometimes care that when I look back over the book I can see the timeline around which the events happened, but really – the date means nothing to me.

What writing the date helps to do:

  • make sure you have a writing implement

  • make sure it works

  • make sure you are on the right page

  • make sure you can see the pad

  • make sure you can write in this position

  • make you start a page

  • make you consider writing more things

  • make it look to others like you know what you are doing (signalling that you are a note-taker, is super important to help people get used to you as a note-taker and encourage that persona onto you)

This is the reason why I write the date; I can't specify enough why I don't care about what date it is, but why I do it anyway.

4. Other things I write:

  • Names of people I meet. Congratulations; you are one step closer to never forgetting the name of anyone ever. Also when you want to think; "When did I last see bob", you can kinda look it up in a dumb - date-sorted list. (to be covered in my post about names – but its a lot easier to look it up 5 minutes later when you have it written down)

  • Where I am/What event I am at. (nice to know what you go to sometimes)

  • What time I got here or what time it started (if its a meeting)

  • What time it ended (or what time I stopped writing things)

It's at this point that the rest of the things you write are kinda personal choices some of mine are:

  • Interesting thoughts I have had

  • Interesting quotes people say

  • Action points that I want to do if I can't do them immediately.

  • Shopping lists

  • diagrams of what you are trying to say.

  • Graphs you see.

  • the general topic of conversation as it changes. (so far this is enough for me to remember the entire conversation and who was there and what they had to say about the matter)


That's right. I said it. Its sexy. There are occasional discussion events near to where I live; that I go to with a notepad. Am I better than the average dude who shows up to chat? no. But everyone knows me. The guy who takes notes. And damn they know I know what I am talking about. And damn they all wish they were me. You know how glasses became a geek-culture signal? Well this is too. Like no other. Want to signal being a sharp human who knows what's going down? Carry a notebook, and show it off to people.

The coordinators have said to me; "It makes me so happy to see someone taking notes, it really makes me feel like I am saying something useful". The least I can do is take notes.


Other notes about notebooks

The number of brilliant people I know who carry a book of some kind will far outweighs the number of people who don't. I don't usually trust the common opinion; but sometimes you just gotta go with what's right.

If it stops working; at least you tried it. If it works; you have evidence and can change the world in the future.

"I write in my phone". (sounds a lot like, "I could write notes in my phone") I hear this a lot.  Especially in person while I am writing notes. Indeed you do. Which is why I am the one with a notebook out and at the end of talking to you I will actually have notes and you will not. If you are genuinely the kind of person with notes in their phone I commend you for doing something with technology that I cannot seem to have sorted out; but if you are like me; and a lot of other people who could always say they could take notes in their phone; but never do; or never look at those notes... Its time to fix this.

a quote from a friend - “I realized in my mid twenties that I would look like a complete badass in a decade, if I could point people to a shelf of my notebooks.” And I love this too.

A friend has suggested that flashcards are his brain; and notepads are not.  I agree that flashcards have benefits. namely to do with organising things around, shuffling etc.  It really depends on what notes you are taking.  I quite like having a default chronology to things, but that might not work for you.

In our local Rationality Dojo’s we give away notebooks.  For the marginal costs of a book of paper; we are making people’s lives better.

The big take away

Get a notebook; make notes; add value to your life.




This post took 3 hours to write over a week

Please add your experiences if you work differently surrounding note taking.

Please fill out the survey of if you found this post helpful.

Comments (20)

Comment author: pan 06 September 2015 02:22:20AM 5 points [-]

The problem I've had with using physical notebooks is that I never close the loop of actually reviewing them and converting the information into a more useable format (anki, connecting related information, etc).

What I've settled on for the last few years is just emailing myself notes throughout the day from my phone. I empty my inbox each day so every note is moved into its appropriate location (calendar for events, files by topic for general thoughts, or to do lists for tasks).

The "sexy" factor is something I've noticed though. I'm regularly tempted to move back to physical notebooks because it somehow feels more legitimate. It also can feel rude sometimes to take out my phone and make a note if I'm talking to someone. All in all though I've found the benefits of converting the information into a digital format as quickly as possible to outweigh other factors.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 September 2015 11:57:18AM 0 points [-]

A good step between physical and digital are Livescribe pens. With them you can take physcial notes that get automatically synced into Evernote.

Comment author: tanagrabeast 06 September 2015 01:25:52AM *  4 points [-]

Twenty years ago, I was an American living in Spain. The most useful habit I established was one of carrying around one or two tiny flip notebooks in my shirt pocket. Whenever I left a situation where I hadn't known the right Spanish word to express myself, I would write down the English equivalent in the left column.

At least once a day, I would consult the premium badass bilingual dictionary I kept on my kitchen table, writing the words or phrases I hadn't known on their corresponding lines in the right column.

During spare moments, I would pull out my notebooks and quiz myself. Over a two-year period, I had filled four or five of these notebooks--thousands of words--and rotated them in or out of my pocket as needed to keep every word fresh in my head. It was spaced repetition for an age before we carried computers in our pockets, and it steadily ratcheted up my language mastery in a very satisfying way.

Living now in the age of Anki, I find myself re-embracing this systemized approach for whatever I'm trying to learn. But the weakest cog in the machine is my inconsistency in making a timely note at the moment of insight or confusion. I'm tempted to go buy another mini-notebook... but since I have a phone with a stylus, I'll first try to train a habit to actually use it.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 September 2015 01:48:52PM 3 points [-]

One big difference between "I use a notebook to take notes" and "I use a phone to take notes" is that the latter can easily be mistaken for "I am playing with my phone and not paying attention".

Comment author: Elo 08 September 2015 09:13:57PM 1 point [-]


Comment author: [deleted] 06 September 2015 08:16:35AM 3 points [-]

I have also tried different formats of notebook, and for a year and a half I have a phone from which to send things. Tried to install a note-writing app and failed thrice, now I only send myself emails.

I send photos of locations. It has already come in handy when I had to remember the way to a population. It felt like magic - I really could see the same exact tree, not rely on the general sense of location. I think I will use this to train my visual memory with other places, in the city, although I do not travel a lot and so this might become boring soon.

Also, photos of fields of view through my microscope. That time I had no choice of camera, and it took a lot of swearing to actually capture the images, but a digital archive is still a good thing. Perhaps I shall make a separate gmail account for photos only.

Photos of timetables, crude maps, parts of plants (definitely beats carrying a herbarium press, although not as reliable since you might miss the crucial feature; but bio ethically, a win), of my kid (I am guilty of not writing letters, but a picture without words is still better than nothing), etc. 'A good naturalist must draw well' is a rule that always frustrated me, since I don't draw well. I once went to great lengths to draw a young plant in my notebook, more like map it in actual size. I am still proud of that picture. However, it turned out to be a species of Dictamnus, and my sister (who helped me) still has stripes on her forearms which don't tan well. (Kinda like scars, but without puckering tissue. We are twins. I don't have anything like that. Must be the whole 'my object of study' effect.) Were I to just take a photo, the lesson would be less painful.

As to notebooks, I carry a small one with lined paper and a pencil holder in my little bag, for ideas/addresses/stuff to buy/...), a middle-sized grid-paper one in my main bag, and several stationary at home, for recipes and the like.

Comment author: ColtInn 07 September 2015 03:56:46AM *  2 points [-]

Six months ago I reverted to carrying and using a notebook. Prior to that I'd been using OneNote on my phone, with some success. The main reasons I began using a notebook again are: 1) when thinking about a particular problem I like to attempt describe its features in words, with a graph, and with math, where possible; 2) I find that I think slightly more clearly when I have to use a pen, and tend to be able to recall it better - not sure why this is.

I use a notebook that is about one third wider, slighter longer, and around three times thicker than my phone. It's pocket-able in most scenarios. The note books I use have a hard cover, an elastic band attached (which I use to keep a bullet space pen attached horizontally along the top of the book for a perfect fit) and is 250 lined pages.

I begin using it from the front for general notes, and record quotes or specific segments of text from the back. Collecting quotes together makes them much easier to find when the pad begins to fill up. I also underline each use of the general notes so that topics are clearly demarcated, making each easier to find later on.

Another related habbit I've gotten into over this period is using a single document notepad in the form of a Google Docs file. I have headings for books and book chapters, journal articles, blog posts, other articles, quotes, theory snippets/examples. If I have had cause to read a journal article, for example, I'll take a few minutes to write up a summary and the full reference for later use, even if I had no intention at the time to use it later. This has been a tough habit to form, but has proven to be very beneficial over the few months that I've been doing it. Of course, if a blog post or newspaper article was semi interesting, but useful only as a consumption good, I'll usually not record it.

Between these two forms of general not taking I've found that most of my needs are covered. I lost the ability to attach photos when switching back to a pen, but I haven't missed it much. I still take the pictures, it just adds and extra step to collate them, but it is something I rarely do. Before putting a full notepad to rest on the bookcase, I'll go through it and add relevant entries to my general notes Google doc (I've usually already done this) or add them in expanded form to specific topic documents.

A drawback is the potential to lose the notebook at any given time, and this is where digital connected versions are vastly superior. When I can draw and write by hand on a widely used phone as easily as I can with a notebook, I'll switch. My solution to the words, graphs and maths note taking on the phone was to record the words by typing them into OneNote, then finding a pen and paper, drawing and writing the pictures and symbols, then taking pictures and adding them to the note. This was fine when a pen and paper were readily available, but they often weren't.

Comment author: casebash 06 September 2015 09:19:06AM 2 points [-]

I'm tempted to get a notebook for those circumstances when it wouldn't be appropriate to write it down in my phone. I really like being able to search my past notes.

Comment author: ColtInn 07 September 2015 04:13:19AM 3 points [-]

Many note taking apps allow you to attach a picture. You could take notes with a pen when it is inappropriate to use your phone, then take a picture of those notes and attach them to an entry in the app. Those notes are then digitally searchable.

Comment author: casebash 07 September 2015 10:04:35AM 1 point [-]

Interesting idea

Comment author: Steven_Bukal 06 September 2015 05:12:35AM *  2 points [-]

I take notes on my phone. I think some big tradeoffs compared to a paper notebook are less ease of writing, more convenience, less physical space taken up, and an end result that is easier to back up and work with in many ways.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 06 September 2015 10:39:49PM 1 point [-]

The key breakthrough for me was making google keep one of the quicklaunch icons on my homescreen. I can enter it instantly, jot something down, and then process it on my laptop later without any transference step.

Comment author: Elo 05 September 2015 11:02:42PM 0 points [-]

As usual; please add any comments you have


Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 06 September 2015 10:46:57AM 2 points [-]

What if I do have a notepad but don't come anywhere near going through one every two months?

Comment author: Elo 06 September 2015 10:36:23PM 0 points [-]

I write really messy and big and irrelevant stuff. But I choose to write extra stuff just in case I grab something that turns out to be useful.

Do you feel like you are noting things that are important? Have you ever had a thought of, "I should write this down" and then decided it was too hard because your notebook is away in your bag?

what do you think is stopping you from writing more?

As you see - my notebook is small and 200 pages, if you had a bigger notebook it would take longer to go through...

Comment author: gjm 05 September 2015 11:19:32PM 2 points [-]

This seems to be at least two separate polls: one about whether people have / will have a notepad and one about whether the post was helpful. (Also: some people may carry a notepad around but not use it to take notes with anything like the intensity you're recommending here. Me, for instance. I should strictly check "I already have a notepad" but that doesn't mean "I'm already doing roughly what you recommend".)

Comment author: Elo 06 September 2015 10:31:16PM 0 points [-]

Already having a notepad and using it well; disqualifies you from needing the help that this post suggests. It is entirely possible to have a notepad but not use it;

there is no place in this world for people not either getting notepads or having notepads.

Comment author: gjm 06 September 2015 10:40:10PM 2 points [-]

My actual situation, as it happens, is that I

  • have a notepad
    • carry it around with me all the time
    • use it much less than you describe
  • have a notebook at work specifically for work purposes
    • use it roughly as you describe (specifically at work)

and I really don't know whether the intention of your poll is that I should check "I already have a notepad" or some other option. (My guess: "have a notepad" really means "have a notepad and use it extensively as described in this post", "get a notepad" has the obviously consequent meaning, etc., so I should probably not claim to "already have a notepad".)

Of course it doesn't matter much whether I have difficulty answering your poll question. But others may too, and (1) this may bias your results (away from "difficult" cases) and (2) it may make the answers harder to interpret.

Comment author: Elo 06 September 2015 11:20:01PM 0 points [-]

Yes this is probably confusing things; its also probably too late to make it better, as adjusting polls makes them lose previous votes...

The fact that you have done the thinking around this means that you probably don't need to be a normal user of the poll. So - happy days!

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 September 2015 07:02:41PM 1 point [-]

I use Evernote to take notes and at the moment via phone or computer. I usually also carry paper to write things down.